Late last week, I received news that a superlative volunteer at an organization I was once employed had died. The news shocked everyone given that she was only in her mid-fifties. Even though I no longer work at the organization, I wanted to use the forum of my blog to do honor to her on the day of her wake to acknowledge the place she had in my life and so many others.
Beverly Dodge was not, to my knowledge, related in any way to Geraldine R. Dodge but on a local level she contributed as much to the arts in her community as the Dodge Foundation. She proved the adage about there being no small roles, only small people. Even in the most passive sense, people’s lives connected with her’s. Her family had a long history in the small town where she lived. One of the staff of my former employer lives in the house Bev grew up in. Although the general store which Bev’s parents once owned closed for a number of years after their deaths, the woman who bought it kept the Dodge name in acknowledgment of it’s history in the town.
She never married but she did have many children. For many years she hosted Japanese exchange students for a year in high school. Some of them returned to live with her when they came back to the U.S. for college. I never heard any of them call her anything but Mom. A couple even brought boyfriends back from Japan to meet Bev.
Bev was the volunteer coordinator at the local hospital and was a primary force in the community fair the hospital held every year. She had a real service orientation in her life. In addition to volunteering for Appel Farm, where I worked, she was active in her church. A couple years ago for her 50th birthday she asked that instead of buying gifts, attendees bring cash that would be donated to Heifer International, an organization that buys livestock, birds and plants to enable people to feed and support themselves.
Of course, she also volunteered for Appel Farm and was the primary hospitality entity that interacted with many groups. For small groups, I took care of hospitality needs but when it came multiple groups or larger events, she was the go to person. She was highly organized, attentive, resourceful and calm in the face of frantic or demanding artists. These are all crucial traits for a hospitality person to have. But she was also patient in the face of long periods of down time and that is something I haven’t found in a volunteer since.
There is a hurry up and wait element in some presenting situations. There is a rush to get everything set up correctly and get food set out and coffee made. Then when the artist arrives there are bus drivers to run to hotels, clothes to be pressed and ironed. But then, you wait….and wait…and wait some more. This is a sign that everything is okay in most cases. People who haven’t done this before feel like they are useless. They have been asked to come in six hours before the curtain. There was a lot to do and now, there is nothing.
But they aren’t useless. I have a lot run around to check on. Other volunteers to meet. Security people to check on. Artists and technicians whose progress I need to monitor. It is a great relief to me that I don’t have to worry about making coffee, icing down more water, running unanticipated errands. When all the little quick jobs aren’t being done, they add up. It’s isn’t just the jobs themselves, it is wiping up the loose coffee grounds, throwing away used plates and crumpled napkins to maintain a pleasant appearance in the green room. Done all at once these things take a lot of time you may not have if you are dealing with thousands of other details.
It is tough to find someone who recognizes that like Bev did and who plans to bring a book and knitting to do. She would introduce herself, quietly withdraw into a corner and then step forward when it was apparent that there was a need. If having good front of house staff is crucial to audience relations, good hospitality staff is crucial to making the performers comfortable, happy and prepared to put on a great show.
There were also occasions where she would have the artists over her house for dinner. It wasn’t terribly often. A lot of people are wary about ending up obligated to remain in the same room as a potentially overbearing fan. But there are a couple people who took a chance or heard good things who welcomed the opportunity for a home cooked meal in the middle of a lengthy tour. Those who didn’t eat at her house became her friend and engaged in lively chatter with her. Even those artists who tended to be reclusive and reserved warmed up to her –or at least what passed for warming up in the context of their normal behavior.
One of the biggest hospitality services Bev provided was during our annual outdoor music festival. Having deep roots in the area, Bev had a lot of cousins. Some of them helped us out on other events, but pretty much all of them got pulled in to the Festival. Fortunately, Bev was sweet tempered because it could have gone badly for us if we got on her bad side. As it was, there was a wedding in the family on the same day as the festival one year and we lost the half of the family that felt closer to the bride than the other half. (Though loyalty still ran high as some of them skipped out of the reception to come to the festival.) I am hoping with her death one of her trusted lieutenants will take charge of the area.
If you have ever volunteered on a music festival, you may know that it can be difficult to get one of the more prestigious assignments. In some cases, this is good because you want trusted, tested people on the crew. The problem with some places is that the crews become very insular and political in a less than constructive way. We tried to prevent this from developing through the general low key environment we cultivated and the process by which people could volunteer. Given we were trying to get 500 volunteers a day, we did depend on crew chiefs to do a lot of the recruitment, but we also introduced people we were trying to develop as future leaders so there was always new blood.
I tell you this to illustrate the trust we had in Bev when I say we never worried about this happening in the artist hospitality area. Part of it I think was due to the fact that she and many of the people she recruited were much more involved with the organization on a year round basis. Even though she was the volunteer coordinator at the hospital, she drew on very few of them. As many cousins as she had in the area, it wasn’t all family either. Many of them lived locally and I guess intuitively understood what we needed from them—and then they would go an extra mile.
I mean, I would take 12-14 artist riders and make a shopping list. We would fill up three flatbed carts at Sam’s Club and then three vehicles to get it all back to the office. Then we engaged a caterer to make food for the artists and volunteers. The amount of food Bev and her cousins brought themselves, you would think we were scheming to starve the performers. There were pots and pots of stuff they had been making for weeks. And Bev would have copies of all the riders so she could make sure to set aside any special requests specific groups had so she knew exactly what I was getting.
Other than being concerned about breaking an overloaded axle on the drive back from Sam’s Club, we never had to worry about artist hospitality on Festival day. Bev would borrow tables from the Ladies Auxiliary and get the room set up days in advance. All we had to do is pile up the food we bought, the stuff to eat it off of and provide plenty of trash bags to haul it away.
I know that there were other people who were involved in organizing the details on festival day. They know the process Bev used. They know the list of things to be done. Even though I am gone, I am still worried about what this year’s festival will bring. At the very least, there will be a lot of rechecking to make sure nothing Bev usually does has been overlooked.
In the near term, as the holidays approach, her absence will be felt keenly. Every year she would get a humongous tree for her living room and invite family and friends to decorate it. I lived half a block away so I would always go. I would also help undecorate it. There were a lot fewer people at that party. The decorating party was a tradition for many people. People would drive in from hours away and renew friendships with those they met at last year’s party.
Bev has been on my mind a number of times since I left Appel Farm. Some times it was wishing she was volunteering for me at the time. Other times it was just wondering how she was doing. Other times it was thinking that I should send some of the Japanese snacks so readily available here but not as much in South Jersey to her for the Japanese students. I have seen her a couple times since I left so I have no regrets about our partings, only about not having the opportunity to meet again.
If you are moved in some way by this story and want to help her continue her legacy, donations can be made in her name to the following organizations:
Appel Farm Arts and Music Center– (856) 358-2472
South Jersey Healthcare-Elmer Hospital– 856-363-1000
She also listed her church as a recipient, but I need to double check on the information and post it.
The Church of the Good Samaritan, Paoli, PA – Freedom and Christ Scholarship Fund (610) 644-4040